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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Oman is a land of golden memories

Chris Pritchard
March 06, 2011

Oman, the land of frankincense and myrrh, is a sweet-smelling oasis where the desert bursts with greenery and there are mysterious ruins aplenty to explore, writes Chris Pritchard.

Bananas are my first surprise. "They grow here," a Salalah resident boasts. "In Salalah in the desert."

It's an oddity: tropical fruit thriving in this corner of the Arabian Desert.

From an arid hillock I see mangoes, papayas and other juicy delights. This lush vista is no mirage.

But it's most peculiar and has to do with climate. Monsoons lash the edges of Oman's far-southern Dhofar region in July and August, turning the desert green. Chunks of countryside remain verdant year-round.

Salalah is where frankincense aromatic ingredient of many a perfume was first grown. It remains commercially important throughout Dhofar. (Salalah, Oman's second city after Muscat, the capital, is in Dhofar.
Myrrh also grows here. It, too, is used in perfumes but more commonly in medicines. The trees are similar-looking and survive in rocky, dry conditions, often near river beds, giving them access to subterranean water.

Both secrete resin, which is harvested, dried and sold by the bag in small pieces.

Papayas dangle precariously from trees in the Hilton Resort Salalah's tropical gardens. I hear a thud: a dropping coconut. Coconut palms seem out of place where date palms flourish.

Colourful weaver birds descend to feast on crumbs at the next table while I sit in a beachside bar, from where I see desert beyond a narrow band of green.

"Some visitors come for beaches," Klaus Schack, general manager of the Hilton Salalah Resort, tells me as we stand on a long strip of powdery white sand. "Some come for ancient ruins. Some come for desert. But most come for all three."

Cruises and charter flights bring tourists from Scandinavia, Europe and elsewhere. Another important catchment area is next door: the United Arab Emirates. Arabs and UAE-based expats (mostly from Dubai) are intent on escaping mid-year desert heat.

World Heritage-listed antiquities ruins of ancient frankincense ports are prime tourist lures.

A broad highway, between the Dhofar Mountains and the Arabian Sea, takes me 40km towards Khor Rori, Salalah's main attraction. The landscape is initially unsurprising: rock-strewn brown earth and scrub. But, after rounding a bend, brown becomes green. Coconuts replace date palms. Street-side stalls sell bananas and papayas.

Several green zones cluster together. Then, after a few kilometres, we're back in the desert. Arrogant-looking camels lope across the asphalt. Vehicles stop, letting them pass. We turn on to gravel for the final 3km.

World Heritage-listed Khor Rori doesn't evoke the immediate awe of, say, Cambodia's Angkor Wat or Peru's Machu Picchu, but it grows on me. It's extraordinarily impressive: little-known ruins of a fourth-century frankincense port called Sumhuram which boomed centuries before Oman's present-day oil and gas output.

Ruins cover an expanse bigger than two football fields: residences, temples, storehouses. The light-brown hue of crumbled walls, less than 2m high, blends with the terrain.

"We'll stop at Taqah," suggests my driver on the way back to Salalah. Fortress-like Taqah Castle was a local ruler's residence. Behind the castle's giant timber doors are reception rooms, sleeping quarters, shady courtyards and even a tiny prison.

Just before we reach Salalah town, I amble through World Heritage-listed Al-Baleed, ruins of another frankincense port. Alongside is the modern Museum of the Frankincense Land.

Oman's main highway, going all the way to Muscat, climbs into the Dhofar Mountains for an hour, bringing me to a third World Heritage site: Wadi Dawkah Frankincense Park. Thick aromatic resin drips when I scratch the trees here. As everywhere in Salalah, the seductive smell of frankincense hangs heavily in the midday heat.